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Mayan Civilization: Political Collapse Theories


Mayan civilization has become more understandable for contemporaries since the time of intense interest in its study. Unlike the European states that arose in later ages, the Mayan civilization’s archaic period dates back to 8000 BC, and the pre-classical period dates from 2000 BC to 250 AD. In these distant times, there were the first Mayan settlements on the territory of modern Guatemala, Belize, Southern Mexico, and parts of El Salvador and Honduras. Mayan culture saw its dawn in the classical period from 250 to 900 AD, which ended with the famous classic Maya political collapse leading to the general decline of civilization. Maya lived in a developed network of cities with constant wars and periods of peace when trade relations flourished. Maya sustained a rich culture, a developed writing system, and a significant interest in astrology. Their faith and religion complemented and supported the political order and included various ceremonies. This paper aims to discuss the possible reasons for the political collapse that marked the end of the classical era of Mayan civilization and explain some ceremonies such as invoking rain and good harvests and ritual sacrifices.

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Scientific Approaches

The study of the Mayan civilization covers the period from its inception to the Spanish conquerors and modernity. Unfortunately, after the Spaniards invaded the continent and subdued the principal Mayan cities in the 16th-17th centuries, they also destroyed most of the written evidence that recorded Mayan history. These records were kept in libraries, and the conquistadors later admitted that the destruction of manuscripts extremely saddened the locals. The Spaniards deliberately burned most of the written texts, as they believed the Mayan peoples’ religion was inspired by the devil and hoped to convert them to the Christian faith.

Therefore, the restoration of historical events now depends mainly on the efforts of archaeologists, who rely on the collection of factual data. Thanks to modern technologies like laser scanning of the soil, many cities of the pre-classical era were located, including the town under a layer of seawater on the coast of modern Belize and cities over which forests of sandalwood and jungle grow (Robin et al., 2019). Soil analysis helps in the study and reconstruction of historical events. For example, thanks to the topographic analysis of the soil, it was possible to determine that in the 6th century, the Mayan civilization was seriously affected by a volcanic eruption, which some scientists consider to be the main reason for the decrease in temperature in Northern latitudes (Nooren et al., 2017).

Soil analysis allows determining the times of epidemics, famine, and drought (Inomata et al., 2017). Artifacts found at the sites of ancient cities and burials help to trace wars, migrations, and the nature of relations between society members. Another significant source of archaeological information is pottery analysis since it allows determining the most accurate time to which the excavations relate (Źrałka et al., 2020). Besides, analyzing drawings on ceramics is similar to working with written documents.

Today, only three sufficiently voluminous written documents created by the Mayan peoples have survived – the Dresden, Paris, and Madrid codes, named by the place of their storage. These codes include mainly astrological calculations based on the famous Mayan calendar, predictions of periods of drought and rain, and deities’ depictions. Ephemeris, Mayan astrological calculations based on the observation of celestial bodies like Mars and Venus are incredibly accurate. Subsequently, they were included in the European databases of astronomical considerations.

Interestingly, Maya successfully observed stars and predicted meteor showers. Scholars found records of four accessions to the throne, which were four days ahead of meteor showers, as reported by the evidence found (Chiao, 2017). This discovery highlights the prowess of Maya as astronomers and mathematicians. Therefore, today scientists have enough information to build grounded theories about the historical development, religion, and daily life of Mayan peoples.

Political Collapse Theories

The main factor that contributed to a political collapse in 900 AD was an overuse of human and natural resources by elites who could not control society well. Hansen (2017) states that Mayan cities used an extensive network of terraces for growing crops and irrigation systems. It helped them create a sustainable model of social order in these cities. However, since the elites, who were mostly responsible for warfare and construction, did not control social relations and trade, they presumably lost power, which led to the collapse of urban civilizations, the devastation of cities, and subsequent mass migration (Hansen, 2017). An additional factor for the alleged defiance of farmers may have been a prolonged period of drought.

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Urban archaeologists use various methods to reconstruct political systems and relationships between residents based on the location and purpose of buildings in ancient cities (Mixter, 2020). Thanks to this approach, scientists developed a theory regarding how some cities resisted the classic Maya collapse of 900 AD. Mixter (2020) notes that Actuncan opposed the political destruction because its government differed from traditional administration in the Mayan cities of that time. According to the buildings’ location and purpose, the governing elite participated in trade, which helped the town maintain its political structure during the drought. Mayan cities of the classical period generally obeyed the king and his aristocracy but had their own rulers and elites. Besides, they were often involved in military confrontations, which was also a factor of political collapse.

Beautiful Bones and Sacrifices

Vance (2019) presented interesting facts from the research of Vera Tiesler in the field of burials. According to the scientist, Vera Tiesler personally analyzed more than 2,000 sets of bones. She participated in the joint analysis of 6,000 remains that were recently deposited at the Autonomous University of the Yucatán, in the Mexican city of Mérida, where she works as an anthropologist (Vance, 2019). Vera entirely devotes herself to her hobby, partly because it is her vocation and partly out of love for her deceased fiancé, who showed her the Mayan excavations and inspired her interest in this topic.

The anthropologist studied bones from commoners and Mayan kings’ burials and often came to unexpected conclusions. For example, the scientist discovered that on many bones from commoners’ burials, one could observe a similar incision in the chest area, indicating the forced opening of the sternum. The precise nature of the cut allowed the anthropologist to determine that the autopsy was professional (Vance, 2019). Vera suggested that it took decades of practice to achieve this level of skill. Later, she found evidence of rituals when people were sacrificed to the gods by cutting off their heads and removing a still-beating heart from their chest.

In other bloody rituals, the sequence changed, and the person was fed his own heart, and then the head was removed. Vera concluded that the ritual with cutting out the heart was performed as a sacrifice to the gods, the well-being and existence of which, according to Mayan beliefs, could be maintained with human blood (Vance, 2019). The person who was sacrificed personified the incarnate god during the ceremony, and therefore he was fed the heart. The anthropologist also found cuts made to release as much blood as possible from the chest. She suggested that the “lakes” of blood were needed to create the most theatrical effect, which indicates that the sacrifices were partly a theatrical performance held in front of many spectators.

Vera Tiesler notes that these data contradict the idea that Mayan peoples were peaceful astrologers who did not have bloody rituals. The scientist noted that many of her colleagues are not ready to accept this fact, despite the evidence. On the other hand, Vera believes that in terms of sacrifices, the Maya peoples were not too different from the peoples of Europe, who invented even more painful tortures. For example, the wheel, when a person was broken one by one all the bones in the body, and then presented to the crowd (Vance, 2019). According to the scholar, the modern descendants of Maya treat this evidence very detached, just like Europeans who perceive the atrocities of Vikings and Germanic tribes as something distant and long gone. Therefore, Vera believes that the Maya do not differ in any way from Europeans and other civilizations.

Another unusual ritual is the tradition of changing the shape of the skulls of newborns, as a result of which the head took an elongated or flatter shape. Vera Tiesler notes that the shape of the skull was usually chosen by the infant’s mother, depending on the form preferred by the given family or community. According to scientific evidence, Maya believed that a baby is not a full-fledged person and can lose part of its soul through holes in the skull (Vance, 2019). To avoid this, the infant’s skull was reshaped to retain the soul or spirit essence. It is noteworthy that the remains with altered skulls make up a very significant percentage among commoners’ burials.

Vera Tiesler studied the remains of Mayan kings, including Lord of the Four Sides of the Flint, Sky Witness, and Fiery Claw. Interestingly, Sky Witness, who brought to power the classic Snake dynasty that ruled from 560 to 710 AD, according to the state of his remains, was a brave warrior who fought in many battles and died at the age of 30-33 years old (Vance, 2019). It was evidenced by the condition of his shield arm and many other injuries, which then healed. His descendant Fiery Claw (or Yich’ak K’ahk’), who was the last in the dynasty, led a completely different lifestyle – his bones indicate that he was obese and had practically not worn teeth, as he ate only soft luxury food.

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The teeth condition made it possible to determine that the king consumed large quantities of cocoa with honey – a drink common among the Mayan nobility. It is noteworthy that Vera Tiesler found an image of this king, featured as a brave warrior. However, his bones deny such a possibility – the king had osteoporosis, which would prevent him from participating in battles, so the image was apparently propaganda. Another trait that speaks to Fiery Claw’s character is that he died at the age of over 50 and was buried along with a young woman and child sacrificed for this purpose (Vance, 2019). Therefore, the remains of the ancient Maya, which were not previously subjected to such a thorough analysis, today can tell a lot about the character of people and their way of life thanks to the talent of anthropologists.

Rain and Harvest Rituals

Jobbová et al. (2018) discovered more peaceful Mayan rituals that were widespread among other ceremonies. The scientists note that these fertility ceremonies are very similar to the rituals in ancient and modern Thailand (Jobbová et al., 2018). Moreover, they are practiced by the Maya today in a somewhat modified form. Jobbová et al. (2018) found drawings picturing the bathing of the deities. Deities were depicted as iconography, with various ceremonial objects in their hands and surrounded by a shaded frame. According to some experts, the shaded frame could represent blood since the Maya believed that sacrificial blood fed their deities.

However, Jobbová et al. (2018) concluded that the image represented a ritual of bathing the deity, which was supposed to cause rain, and the shaded frame meant the smoke, cloud, or water. This ceremony was traditionally performed on the eve of the seasonal end of the drought period and was attended by all community members. The scientists also analyzed the fertility ritual depicted in iconography (Jobbová et al., 2018). The featured deity, scattering maize seeds, was surrounded by ritual objects and a shaded frame. It is likely that to carry out the ritual, a shaman or one of the residents took on the role and performed actions determined by the image.


Thus, this paper presented possible causes of political collapse and explained ceremonies of sacrifice and rain and harvest rituals. Maya people were an advanced civilization that originated from antiquity. The pre-classical, classical, and post-classical eras had many differences, but they were united by similar political structures, cultures, and traditions. Unusual and cruel practices were very similar to the rituals of other peoples. It confirms that the ancient Maya were not decisively different from other ancient civilizations.


Inomata, T., Triadan, D., MacLellan, J., Burham, M., Aoyama, K., Palomo, J. M., & Nasu, H. (2017). High-precision radiocarbon dating of political collapse and dynastic origins at the Maya site of Ceibal, Guatemala. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(6), 1293-1298.

Chiao, M. (2017). Maya meteor mystery. Nature Astronomy, 1(9), 561-569.

Hansen, R. D. (2017). The feast before famine and fighting: the origins and consequences of social complexity in the Mirador Basin, Guatemala. In Feast, Famine or Fighting? (pp. 305-335). Springer, Cham.

Jobbová, E., Helmke, C., & Bevan, A. (2018). Ritual responses to drought: An examination of ritual expressions in Classic Maya written sources. Human Ecology, 46(5), 759-781.

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Mixter, D. W. (2020). Community resilience and urban planning during the ninth-century Maya collapse: A case study from Actuncan, Belize. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 30(2), 219-237.

Nooren, K., Hoek, W. Z., van der Plicht, H., Sigl, M., van Bergen, M. J., Galop, D., & Middelkoop, H. (2017). Explosive eruption of El Chichón volcano (Mexico) disrupted 6th century Maya civilization and contributed to global cooling. Geology, 45(2), 175-178.

Robin, C., Kosakowsky, L., Grauer, K., Nissen, Z., & Fitzgerald, K. (2019). Aventura in a Northern Belize context: Challenging traditional narratives of ancient Maya Civilization. Research Reports in Belizean Archaeology, 16(1), 227-236.

Vance, E. (2019). Maya bones bring a lost civilization to life. Nature, 566(7743), 168-183.

Źrałka, J., Helmke, C., Hermes, B., Koszkul, W., Ting, C., Bishop, R., & Bojkowska, D. (2020). Political alliances and trade connections observed in the ceramic record of the Classic period: The perspective from the Maya site of Nakum, Guatemala. Ancient Mesoamerica, 31(3), 461-475.

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